Technology

How Apple Feeds Its Army of App Makers


As he has for each of the past 14 years, Andrew Stone woke at 3:45 on the morning of Apple's (AAPL) annual Worldwide Developers Conference on June 6 in San Francisco, grabbed his yoga mat, and joined the queue of techies waiting to be let in for Steve Jobs's 10 a.m. presentation. The gangly Stone, a former architect who has written software for Jobs's machines since the 1980s, revels in talking tech with fellow Apple geeks, particularly the Europeans and Asians who often save a night's hotel fare by spending the night in line.

This year, more than ever, the good mood was powered by something other than camaraderie: Developers are making money, getting lots of contract work. "You have no idea how many people around here are overjoyed," says Stone, 55, who flew up from his home in Albuquerque the day before. He recalls far leaner years, when many struggled to come up with the $3,000 or so for the conference fee and travel. "Now, good developers can make almost as much money as they want."

The scene outside the conference hall is a snapshot of the war Apple is waging for the hearts and minds of developers. The scale and diversity of Apple's app universe—425,000, roughly twice as many as Android's—is a big reason consumers have purchased more than 200 million iPads, iPhones, and iPod touches. In his WWDC talk, Jobs laid out a post-PC vision of online services that will open up vast opportunities for programmers to come up with new kinds of software. "We're going to demote the PC and the Mac to be just another device," Jobs told the crowd. "We're going to move the hub of your digital life to the cloud." He announced a new service, iCloud, that will ensure any photo, music, or other file that is downloaded or changed on your iPhone is automatically, wirelessly synched to any of your other Apple devices and vice versa. A new iMessage will make it simpler to communicate via text, voice, and video. The basic iOS operating system has been improved, which will make it easier to snap pictures, share files, or find an article. To the extent that Jobs can persuade consumers not to bother with non-Apple products, his pull with developers may increase as well.

Freelance developers such as Stone tend to be an idealistic, egalitarian bunch, suspicious of big companies intent on telling them, or consumers, what to do. And yet Apple has expertly played on their pragmatism—programming tools are slick and simple to use, for example. The main reason there are so many more apps available for Apple products is that there are more ways for developers to make money on them. Consumers have paid more than $4.3 billion for apps sold on Apple's App Store. That includes the original purchase, plus upgrades and ads that appear within the apps. Eddie Marks and his college roommate haven't even bothered to count up the winnings from the ads that appear on their free app, which lets iPhone users simulate the sound of cocking and firing a shotgun. "We've made more than $1 million," says Marks, whose initial goal was simply to raise rent and beer money until he could find a job after graduation in 2008. "It could be $2 million, but I doubt it."

Apple hasn't monopolized developers' attention. According to a survey by market research firm Evans Data, the percentage of developers writing apps for Android (43.5 percent) just passed the share working in iOS (39.7 percent). While Apple dominates a certain high-end niche, Android has been adopted by almost every other phone maker and wireless carrier. Throw in the hundreds of millions of devices running BlackBerry, Microsoft (MSFT) Windows Phone, or Nokia's (NOK) Symbian, and "there's very little exclusivity in the mobile development space," says Evans Data Chief Executive Officer Janel Garvin.

To keep its developers engaged and loyal, Apple sweats the small stuff. Developers rave about the quality of the company's "development environment"—the collection of technical specifications, manuals, and programming tools used to write apps. Those for the iPhone are easily written on Macs by developers using many of the same techniques they've employed over the past 30 years to create Mac programs. There's even an iPhone simulator, a piece of software that lets developers see on their Mac screen exactly how their program would operate on the phone. Apple is also renowned for its application programming interfaces, or APIs, which are the sets of instructions that programmers use to take advantage of an operating system's capabilities. While the 5,200 engineers at Jobs's keynote roared in approval at some of the consumer features (e.g., wireless, PC-less synching), some of the loudest huzzahs were for the 1,500 new APIs. That sounds—and is—complicated. And yet, since Apple makes only three mobile products, writing iOS software is simpler than doing so for Android devices, which come in many more flavors, each with its own quirks. Adam Williams, a computer science graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, has earned more than $100,000 from three iPhone apps. He considered writing software for Android, too, but gave up after spending a few weekends dabbling with Google's (GOOG) developer tools. "It seemed like too much work, for a questionable return," he says.

Developers still have a list of complaints. Like technology powers past and present, Apple isn't above taking over software categories created by partners. When Apple Senior Vice-President Scott Forstall showed how the new iOS software could give reminders to pick up milk at a certain time, it spelled big trouble for companies such as Remember The Milk. "That groan you heard from the crowd was the sound of companies realizing that they no longer exist," says Salesforce.com (CRM) CEO Marc Benioff, who was on hand at the keynote.

And while Jobs's software ecosystem may seem egalitarian, it's anything but. Big-name software makers such as Electronic Arts (ERTS) are assigned dedicated account reps to handle their complaints and are far more likely to be mentioned in a Jobs keynote or an Apple commercial, which all but guarantees millions of downloads. Smaller players wait in frustration to see if Apple's app-approval staff will give their blessing, with almost no means of influencing the decision. After the success of his Shotgun Free app, Eddie Marks and his partner landed a gig creating a promotional app for the sci-fi movie Mutant Chronicles. By the time Apple approved it, the film had come and gone from theaters. "It never went live," says Marks. "I think it's because we got started making toy guns. I'm a little bit bitter about it."

In a way, this subjective system is a strength for Apple: It's quality control. "Their standards are incredibly high. They are not looking for the next copycat, something that has been done before," says Cyriac Roeding, CEO of Shopkick, which makes a small device that retailers can deploy to identify iPhone owners when they walk into a store. Rather than just do a PowerPoint pitch for Apple's developer relations staffers, he had to demonstrate that the gizmo actually worked. It did; Shopkick's devices are now in use by Target (TGT), Best Buy (BBY), and Macy's (M).

Stone is unwavering in his Apple admiration. Back in Albuquerque, he hosts a weekly gathering of iOS geeks-for-hire at the RB Winning Coffee shop. Stone acts as a kind of foreman, matching coders, database experts, user interface designers, and business guys ("schmoozers," he calls them) to work on the many projects he hears about. "So many companies are throwing themselves into this thing," he says. "It's like the hot new girlfriend."

The bottom line: Apple has expertly cultivated its ecosystem of third-party software developers, a huge advantage in its rivalry with Android.

Burrows is a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, based in San Francisco.

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